Since I was announced as the new chair of England Athletics, quite a number of people have asked me why I’ve taken on three roles that hold no link between them.
It’s true that I think I’ll really enjoy the variety of England Athletics, Parkinson’s UK and the Z Zurich Foundation, but they are also linked by two things that are central to my own life and well-being – firstly sport, exercise and activity and secondly, being part of a community and the joy of making a difference to that community.
The Z Zurich Foundation and Parkinson’s UK roles have both allowed me to use my experience to have an impact. In both cases, though, I started with the intent to give back and, in both cases, I have found myself learning more than I could ever teach, being inspired by the people I meet or hear about, including many overcoming disadvantages and labels that just shouldn’t exist.
Sport can be inspirational and life affirming
England Athletics has similarities. Sport can build confidence, help people lift their horizons and recognise their potential, learn teamwork, discipline and the ability to fall short and lead more effectively despite that. It can help us manage through grief and give us perspective, memories, friendships and hope.
Running is the biggest participation sport in England, with over 7 million regular runners, from elite to casual and from young to old. The opportunity to help support the positive impact that this single statistic hides gives me a jolt of energy and England Athletics has a crucial role in helping that potential to be realised in every part of our society and for everyone. Sport at its best has the power to unite, respecting and celebrating differences.
Health and wellbeing is more than just physical
Physical fitness, participation and belonging are crucial in pushing back the wave of mental health issues that threaten to fracture our society. Success in taking on mental health challenges will require earlier support and prevention rather than the 2% of health budgets currently allocated globally, mostly to recovery. It also means having open conversations and destroying the stigma that limits our ability to act and act now. We must also recognise that the pressures that cause mental health issues are present in all parts of our society, but they particularly hit the young (1 in 7 adolescents experience mental health issues) and the vulnerable and societally disadvantaged. The Z Zurich Foundation’s support of Tackle Your Feelings in Ireland with Rugby players and Australia with AFL Coaches Associations and AFL Players has been incredibly successful in letting sporting role models share their stories and unblock the silence that many young people suffer in. The Z Zurich Foundation’s new global partnership with UNICEF brings this same spirit of openness, awareness and prevention to parts of the world where the spending on mental well-being has dropped below 1% of health budgets.
…and then Parkinson’s. People with Parkinson’s have lower levels of activity on average and can be caught in a loop where the symptoms, including stiffness and balance problems, make activity less natural. There is no cure today. Exercise and activity is one thing scientifically proven to slow (but not stop) decline in Parkinson’s patients. This is increasingly understood but still not an automatic part of treatment for the condition. Mental health issues are also more common amongst people with Parkinson’s and greater activity and social engagement can make a difference here too. Awareness of the benefits are growing as is the fact that you don’t have to be a marathon runner to see the help – some groups see positive change with exercises sitting down for example. Younger people being diagnosed can see the benefits for longer and longer too.
Exercise isn’t the answer to everything by any means, but the great thing is that if we work on the other issues then exercise will still work. If we cure Parkinson’s, then I’ll just get to enjoy the benefits of sport for even longer!